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Posts from the ‘Americas’ Category

Perverse Incentives and Killings By Security Forces

By Taylor Marvin

Extrajudicial killings by security forces are not unique to the Americas, but have repeatedly dominated the region’s headlines. While these killings stem from many causes, occasionally they are encouraged by almost deliberately perverse incentives.

As Juliana Barbassa recounts in her excellent Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, by the late 1980s Rio de Janeiro’s police forces found themselves increasingly outgunned by drug traffickers. “That imbalance lasted until 1994,” Barbassa writes, “when Rio elected a new tough-on-crime governor, Marcello Alencar.” In addition to up-gunning Rio’s Polícia Militar with more semiautomatic weapons, Alencar also “instituted raises for police who demonstrated bravery on the job—bravery as measured in the number of bodies left on the ground. This became known as the Wild West bonus: shoot, then collect.” Again according to Barbassa, the new policy doubled the number of suspects police reported killing in gunfights, many who the police are suspected of instead executing. Although Rio de Janeiro police’s harsh tactics predate the bonus policy – which was revoked in 1998 – “taking the Wild West bonus off the books did not change the culture it had reinforced within police departments” and today on-duty police commit 16 percent of Rio’s homicides.

This calls to mind Colombia’s so-called “false positive” scandal, which was first widely reported in 2008 (this Human Rights Watch report comes via Boz). Lured by a 2005 directive which rewarded combat kills in the war against leftist rebels with leave and cash bonuses, Colombian soldiers murdered thousands of civilians – usually poor men – before dressing them in fatigues and reporting them as rebels. These murders were systemic: citing Colombia ReportsJoel Gillin notes that when false positive killings peaked in 2007 “at least 40 percent of combat kills were in fact civilians.” As Tom Feiling writes in his book Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia, false positive killing spread throughout the Colombian Army. Similarly to Rio’s police, while the bonus policy was revoked in 2006 “body count syndrome” had already infected the Colombian military. Despite public outcry, investigations, and the forced resignations of some senior officers, “once the peripatetic gaze of the camera had passed,” Feiling writes, “the armed forces returned to time-honored tactics.” Both the military and the governments of Presidents Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos balked at imposing real consequences, and the Colombian military’s human rights record remains poor.

What is particularly striking about both of these cases is how predictable the consequences of “body count syndrome” policies should have been. Beyond a myopic focus on body counts as a metric for judging counterinsurgency and policing, directly rewarding soldiers and police for killing the ‘enemy’ creates an obvious incentive for soldiers to murder civilians, or in police’s case for extrajudicial killings and disproportionate use of force. Indeed, this is not a case of Latin American institutions inadvertently allowing human rights abuses, but rather directly fostering them.

While Colombia’s insurgency is largely unique today, extreme insecurity continues to challenge many Latin American governments. Under public and international pressure to impose order these governments are tempted to reward soldiers and police who ‘get the job done,’ measure security though body counts, and impress the public with this progress: a 1997 diplomatic cable cited by Colombia Reports argues that the incentives created by institutional body count syndrome tended “to fuel human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors.” This is a mistake.

Recognizing the perverse incentives that rewarding security forces for combat kills create is vital for avoiding human rights abuses, but alone is not enough. Extrajudicial killings and coverups are not only prompted by personal rewards: InSight Crime has noted body count syndrome elsewhere and Boz police coverups in Mexico and Venezuela. American police forces and local governments also frequently conceal police murders, often of people of color. Just as in the US, Latin America’s false positive killings – and the Americas’ high homicide rate more broadly – are linked the region’s extreme inequality and racism. The victims of the Colombian Army’s false positive murders are mainly the poor, and according to a recent Amnesty International report the majority of those killed by Rio de Janeiro’s police are young black men. (Not coincidently, as Rio on Watch writes Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police is descended from a force tasked with keeping slaves down.)

The consequences of policies that reward individual soldiers and police for killing are predictable. Despite their very real security challenges it is difficult to imagine Latin American governments rewarding body counts if they valued the bodies of these policies’ victims.

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Argentina’s Elections and the Falklands Dispute

President Kirchner votes. presidencia.gov.ar photo, via Wikimedia.

President Kirchner votes. presidencia.gov.ar photo, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

On November 22nd Argentines will go to the polls to elect a new president. This presidential runoff, which follows an inconclusive first round held on October 25th, marks the end of an era for Argentina. Since 2003 Argentina has been led by the husband and wife duo of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with Cristina elected in 2007 and again in 2011. (Widely thought to aspire to return to the presidency, Néstor suffered an untimely death in 2010.) With Kirchner constitutionally barred from a third term, many hope the election of a new Argentine president is also an opportunity to wind down Kirchner’s aggressive rhetoric about the disputed Falkland Islands.

Argentina has long claimed the Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas and officially views British sovereignty as “a blatant exercise of 19th-Century colonialism,” in Kirchner’s words. Despite earlier tentative steps towards a negotiated solution to the dispute, in 1982 the Argentine military seized the Islands. In the midst of economic stagnation and its murderous “Dirty War” the ruling military junta hoped that a quick victory would boost the regime’s domestic popularity, but seriously misjudged UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s willingness to fight. As Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins write in their history The Battle for the Falklands, while the UK came far closer to military disaster than is often realized, British forces eventually retook the Falklands. The war left 225 British servicemen, three Falkland civilians, and around 650 Argentines dead, as well as thousands of soldiers scarred mentally and physically by the brutal conflict.

Throughout her tenure Cristina Kirchner has stressed the Falklands issue, arguing that the UK illegally took possession of the Islands in 1833. Kirchner has repeatedly called for dialogue over the Islands’ status in her UN addresses (though not this year), and tied the issue to UN Security Council reform (though Argentina opposes fellow Mercosur member Brazil’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat). In 2012 Kirchner “ambushed” British PM David Cameron at the UN with a letter about the issue, and two years later Kirchner commemorated the 32nd anniversary of Argentina’s invasion by introducing a new banknote featuring a map of the Falklands. The recent discovery of oil off the Falklands also gave new impetus to Argentina’s push, and Argentina has threatened to sue British oil companies involved in exploration off the Islands – despite the fact that low oil prices are challenging the offshore oil’s commercial viability.

Map by the CIA World Factbook.

Map by the CIA World Factbook.

The ongoing presidential election has centered around economic issues and the legacy of Kirchnerismo, as Kevin Lees chronicles, and despite leaving office Kirchner is expected to remain politically powerful, as Simon Romero and Jonathan Gilbert write. (Indeed, Kirchner is thought to hope to return to the presidency in 2019). But as the Week reports, both of the candidates competing in the runoff election have taken comparatively moderate stances on the Falklands. While insisting that the Islands are rightly Argentina’s, opposition center-right candidate and current Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri wants to improve relations with the UK and “has also signalled that he would abolish the government role of Falklands Secretary, or Malvinas Secretary, created by Kirchner in 2013.” Similarly, the Independent’s David Usborne reports that Kirchner’s preferred successor and Buenos Aires province governor Daniel Scioli, who narrowly won the first round, is also expected to “seek to adopt a fresh and less belligerent tone in the hope of bringing Britain to the table.” Despite the wide enthusiasm for the Malvinas cause in Argentina, some see Kirchner’s combativeness as counterproductive, as Usborne’s excellent story notes. “Everyone has the sensation that Argentina gets into these quarrels for no reason … and that’s true with the Malvinas,” says Marcos Novaro, an Argentine think tank director quoted by Usborne. Others disagree, and acknowledge that there little room for mutual reconciliation between Argentina and the UK regardless of Kirchner’s rhetoric.

Whatever their reasons, Macri and Scioli’s apparent moderation is a recognition of reality. After the Falkland Islanders overwhelmingly approved continued British sovereignty in a 2013 referendum it is difficult to see any hope for a diplomatic agreement that meaningfully cedes sovereignty to Argentina — though it was the invasion more than anything else that hardened the British position. For its part, Argentina views the “imported” Islanders’ self-determination as irrelevant.

But beyond diplomatic considerations, Argentina’s lack of diplomatic leverage is compounded by its limited ability to militarily threaten the Islands today. Decades of financial crises have left Argentine military forces decrepit: its aircraft are “barely serviceable” and as of at least 2012 the Navy’s submarines rarely went to sea, falling far short of their required training time. Argentina has vague plans to refurbish its decaying Air Force with new jet fighters but the government’s financial challenges mean that any purchase is likely a way off,* and the UK has the ability to veto most Western fighter sales. These financial challenges are compounded by the low priority Argentina’s civilian leaders assign the military. As a 2014 report by Rowan Allport notes, Kirchner’s “nationalistic tone should not be interpreted as a pro-military stance,” and “the Nestor/Cristina Kirchner era has seen the military fall to near the bottom of Argentina’s spending priorities list.”

However, budget cuts have curtailed Britain’s military capabilities as well, and raised fears that the UK could not longer retake the Falklands. The number of British combat-ready aircraft is falling, and today the UK does not operate an aircraft carrier able to embark fixed-wing aircraft, which would be critical in any renewed conflict over the Falklands. This absence “creates a window of opportunity for Argentina,” in Defense Industry Daily’s words, but “one that will slam shut decisively around 2020” when the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers enter service, though when the ships’ advanced F-35B fighter aircraft will actually be reliably combat-ready is uncertain. However, the UK’s nuclear fast attack submarines would already complicate any Argentine effort to take and hold the Falklands, and would quickly isolate any Argentine invasion force. Indeed, during the Falklands War after a British submarine sank the cruiser ARA General Belgrano Argentina kept its single carrier, the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, in port, forcing land-based Argentine fighter aircraft to fight at the very limit of their range. The RAF also bases a handful of advanced fighter aircraft on the Falklands, another major barrier to a successful invasion.

Despite Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s unstable style of governance she did not choose to resume hostilities, which now seem even more unlikely through 2019. In addition to Argentina’s military weaknesses, recently events have also dramatically illustrated the downsides of even nearly bloodless territorial annexation. From a military standpoint Russia’s seizure of Crimea was a complete success, but drew widespread condemnation and economic sanctions that have severely damaged the Russian economy. While the two cases are not directly comparable – many of Argentina’s major trading partners would not impose retaliatory sanctions – an invasion’s best possible outcome could still bring diplomatic and economic costs not worth the gain. Pressing the Islas Malvinas issue may be a useful political tool – and a sincere grievance for many Argentines – but its use rests far more on the personality and priorities of Argentina’s president than the actual chances of realizing Argentina’s claim.

*Update (11/10/2015): UK Defense Journal (via Jeremiah Cushman) and Flight Global are reporting that Argentina will soon sign a contract to purchase 14 Kfir fighters from Israel.

Update (11/18/2015): Or maybe not – according to MercoPress (originally via Defesa Aérea & Naval) Clarin reports that the Kfir deal has been frozen, and that there is disagreement among senior Argentine Air Force officers over the aircraft, most of which reportedly are not equipped with radar.

Why Does Brazil Want a Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine?

By Taylor Marvin

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

In August, the Brazilian site DefesaNet reported that despite recent budget cuts developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine remains a priority for Brazil’s navy. Amid a stumbling economy the Brazilian Navy’s budget was reduced from R$ 5.2 to R$3.9 billion, or roughly $1.3 and $1 billion in US dollars. “The first step is establishing clear priorities, which are the nuclear and submarine construction program, besides maintaining our operational squadron,” Navy commander Admiral* Eduardo Bacellar said during a senate commission event. “For the Navy commander, any threat to Brazilian sovereignty would necessarily come from the sea,” DefesaNet’s report continues, and the Navy’s stated goal of “keeping the South Atlantic free of conflicts” includes defending Brazil’s offshore petroleum resources. [My translation.]

Under current plans Brazil will build four diesel-electric attack submarines and a single much larger nuclear-powered submarine (Submarino com Propulsão Nuclear, or SN-BR); the first conventionally-powered submarine is expected to be completed in 2017. (It is important to distinguish between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines, the latter of which are often powered by nuclear reactors. Brazil does not possess nuclear weapons.) These submarines are being developed with French assistance and are based on the French Scorpène class, though France is not sharing nuclear technology (see a comparison of the conventional and nuclear-powered submarines at Think Defense). As Defense Industry Daily reports, French technical cooperation will allow Brazilian firms to grow their own advanced manufacturing capabilities. This industrial development is a key goal of the program, as is job creation. While Brazil could have easily purchased the conventional submarines from established suppliers abroad, building the submarines in Brazil is an important aim of the project. The nuclear submarine is slated to begin construction in 2016 and to enter operational service 2025. (This date is now unlikely; see update below.)Though details are uncertain, later on Brazil hopes to build additional nuclear-powered subs.

By far the most complex aspect of the submarine project – which abbreviated as PROSUB – is Brazil’s effort to develop submarine nuclear propulsion. Many navies operate conventional attack submarines, and while building these boats is difficult enough developing the compact nuclear reactor required to power a nuclear submarine is a formidable undertaking. Brazil has operated a civil nuclear power station since the 1980s and covertly pursued nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, but the country is not a leading expert in the nuclear power sector. Combined with a relative paucity of funding, this technical inexperience has contributed to the nuclear propulsion effort’s long history: in tandem with its stumbling efforts to develop nuclear weapons Brazil first embarked on the development of a maritime nuclear reactor in 1979, while funding the nuclear submarine’s construction was first announced by President Luíz Inácio da Silva in 2007.

Developing a nuclear-powered submarine is an enormously difficult and uncertain enterprise with no assurances of success: only China, France, India, Russia, the UK, and US have done so. Given these barriers, why is the Brazilian Navy so focused on building one? As a 2009 Proceedings article by Paul D. Taylor explains (via Defense Industry Daily) “the answer is apparently more related to political and economic factors associated with grand strategy than to requirements of naval strategy.” Brazil is developing a nuclear submarine because it aspires to join – and importantly be recognized among – the ranks of the global leaders that can field a particularly formidable, expensive, and prestigious class of military technology.

Brazil aspires to be a world power, an aspiration justified in Brazilian eyes by the country’s large population, continental size, maturing democracy, cultural soft power, and regional leadership. Naval power, specifically extending Brazilian influence across the South Atlantic, is a key path towards realizing Brazil’s global aspirations. As Nathan Thompson and Robert Muggah recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Brazil has coupled soft-power initiatives with a dramatic boost in military cooperation with Africa, conducting joint naval exercises, providing military training and arms transfers, and establishing outposts in ports across the continent’s western coast.” Oliver Stuenkel also notes the importance of the South Atlantic in Brazilian strategic thought, which is expressed in the phrase Amazônia Azul or “Blue Amazon.” “Analogous to Brazil’s growing role on the [African] continent,” Stuenkel wrote in 2013, Brazil “is bound to play a larger role in the South Atlantic … and it has resisted attempts made by Europe and the United States … to create one single Atlantic Space.”

The Brazilian Navy sees the SN-BR as a vital component of the country’s overall maritime strategy. An attack submarine’s core mission is destroying enemy warships and shipping and hunting other submarines (and, to a lesser extent, launching land attack cruise missiles). While the advent of advanced air-independent propulsion schemes have eroded nuclear-powered submarines’ advantages over their conventional peers, nuclear-powered attack submarines are able sustain much higher speeds when submerged and patrol longer distances, a key advantage given Brazil’s 7,000 kilometers of coastline.

But as Taylor notes, none of the then-stated strategic rationales for a Brazilian nuclear submarine – protecting offshore oil platforms and patrolling Brazil’s Exclusive Economic Zone – seem justifiable: the SN-BR’s costs make little sense given that Brazil has no external enemies. Clearly, other aims are at work.

Brazilian officials justify PROSUB by citing the need to deter potential aggressors and protect Brazil’s offshore resources. This maritime patrimony or “Blue Amazon” is even referenced in the name of the government-owned consortium responsible for the nuclear sub project, Amazul. As Taylor notes, the “Blue Amazon” metaphor is a deliberate public relations strategy. Throughout their history Brazilians have often described the vast Amazon as the resource that makes their country exceptional, but also one that is threatened by outside forces. “The Brazilian elite, especially the military, had long worried that their country might lose the Amazon valley for want of settling it,” Thomas E. Skidmore writes in The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85, discussing the military dictatorship’s ill-advised attempt to open the Amazon basin to agriculture. “Generations of Brazilian army cadets had been taught the Amazon’s geopolitical significance; now as officers they feared possible Peruvian or Venezuelan incursions into Brazil’s vasty but thinly held territory upriver. This worry deepened as the Amazon’s extraordinary mineral wealth – especially iron ore – became known.” Importantly, exactly who threatens the Amazon is unimportant: earlier generations feared America’s tentacles reaching south into the Amazon, rumors that improbably persist into the 21st century. By invoking these fears the Brazilian Navy’s use of the phrase Amazônia Azul suggests – and, importantly, advocates – both the importance of Brazil’s maritime resources and their vulnerability. While it is difficult to say who threatens Brazil’s offshore resources, the Amazônia Azul metaphor creates a narrative where someone does.

In this narrative submarines are required to defend Brazil’s maritime patrimony, and the immediate impracticality of a modern submarine force is irrelevant. As Stuenkel dryly notes “specialists are unsure how nuclear submarines are useful” in the context of defending offshore resources, but despite the rhetoric that justifies their development are in service of a larger goal. “Rather, the development of nuclear submarines can be seen as a long-term project to eventually gain the capacity to control the South Atlantic strategically.” Extended across the Atlantic, Amazônia Azul’s defensive rhetoric becomes, implicitly, an offensive sea denial strategy, at least in theory.

Beyond their role in war and deterrence value, the existence – or more importantly, development – of submarines plays a pivotal role in Brazil’s ambitions. Advanced submarines, and particularly nuclear-powered submarines, are an important source of national prestige. Brazil’s aspirations to global influence and long-standing desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council make it keenly aware how possessing prestige symbols can further these goals. Nuclear submarines are restricted to a select club which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a fact President Rousseff explicitly referenced in her December 2014 inauguration of the facility where the submarine’s reactor will be installed. (Rousseff skirted around India’s ongoing development of a nuclear submarine, which is both convenient – India also seeks a permanent UNSC seat – and inconvenient for this narrative.) Additionally, and again as Taylor writes, fielding a nuclear submarine “would add an argument to the case that [Brazil] so far exceeds the strength of its regional neighbors that it is a natural choice” for an expanded Security Council, though as Stuenkel notes “Brazil has rarely used its dominant role in South America as the basis for its claim to global leadership.” Even so, this dynamic is not that different from aircraft carriers – and today Brazil is the only Latin American country to operate (in theory, given its uncertain reliability) an aircraft carrier of its own, though Brazil’s naval fighter aircraft are ancient.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

Brazil has also pursued nuclear technology for decades, demonstrating a deep desire to be seen belonging to the elite club of states proficient in nuclear energy. Brazil sought to develop nuclear weapons before voluntarily giving up its nuclear ambitions through a series of diplomatic accords. The country generates a small portion of its electricity from nuclear power, though not without setbacks; the country’s unreliable civil nuclear power plant was nicknamed the “firefly” in the 1980s for its flickering output. With developing nuclear weapons now both undesirable and politically unavailable, in national prestige terms militarized nuclear energy – maritime reactors – is the next best thing. “The domination of nuclear technology is seen as a national symbol of pride and proof that Brazil is no longer a developing country,” Stuenkel writes of a nuclear submarine. While a nuclear reactor could power a future aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship (or any other large surface ship, if cost-effectiveness isn’t considered) in modern US service only submarines and supercarriers steam under nuclear power. (Brazil’s São Paulo carrier, formerly the French Foch, is conventionally powered.) If Brazil prizes nuclear status and an attack submarine is the most plausible rational for achieving this distinction then the SN-BR program is the justification for developing and fielding militarized nuclear energy, not the other way around.

Beyond its immediate military justifications and wider role as a status symbol, questions about the SN-BR’s value remain. Every real spent on the nuclear submarine is funding that cannot be spent elsewhere. Is the expensive effort to develop the SN-BR the best means of expanding Brazil power across the South Atlantic?

After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine prompted France to cancel the planned sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, Robert Farley speculated that these ships – which are capable of launching dozens of helicopters and landing marines onshore – could be purchased by Brazil to supplement the country’s aging aircraft carrier. While this sale was never likely and the Mistrals were recently bought by a Gulf-backed Egypt, the Mistrals arguably fit far better into Brazil’s South Atlantic-spanning strategy aspirations than an expensive homegrown nuclear-powered submarine.

While Brazil’s global aspirations have stalled under the inward-facing and distracted Rousseff administration, the South Atlantic and Africa is likely to remain an important focus of Brazil’s long-term strategic vision. Amphibious assault ships are relevant to this vision – which, importantly, given Brazil’s lack of peer rivals is more a peaceful one of security assistance rather than outright sea denial – in a way submarines are not. Versatile flattops can project airpower, contribute to disaster relief and amphibious operations, and provide a highly visible symbol of Brazilian power. While not directly referencing Brazil’s South Atlantic priorities, Farley emphasizes this point: unlike the aging São Paulo carrier, amphibious assault ships “can increase Brazil’s regional influence not merely by existing, but also by doing things on a daily basis.” They have the same advantage over submarines.

In some ways the submarine project, and especially Brazil’s efforts to develop nuclear propulsion, is a holdover from a more hopeful era: it is difficult to imagine the beleaguered Rousseff administration embarking the program today. Similarly, the decision to tie Brazil’s prestige and global ambitions to advanced submarines rather acquiring amphibious assault ships or other markers of national power rests on decisions taken decades ago, when the Brazil first embarked on its nuclear weapons and energy programs. And of course, the chance to purchase the Mistrals was an unpredictable one-off opportunity that would have been difficult to manage even if Brazil was interested.

Actually building the nuclear-powered submarine will be difficult and is likely to face technical problems and funding shortages, particularly given Brazil’s current economic slump. But despite these strategic questions and practical challenges Brazil has committed itself to realizing PROSUB’s ambitions. Whether the program will bring Brazil the influence and prestige it seeks remains to be seen.

*Naval ranks translated into US equivalents with the help of Wikipedia.

Update (11/30/2015): As O Globo reported on November 11th (via Poder Naval), budget cuts have now delayed the expected nuclear submarine schedule by three to four years. I have not updated the 2025 service entry date included in the original text, both as a reference and since in Brazil’s economic climate this new target remains uncertain.

Trump, Deportations, and El Salvador’s Violent Crisis

By Taylor Marvin

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia.

Donald Trump’s appeal is not entirely, or even primarily, due to his harsh stance on illegal immigration: prospective Republican primary voters value his belligerence and apparent business competence, and are perhaps influenced by the reality TV-fueled perception that “he’s commanding, he’s confident, he’s respected, he demands accountability,” in Kevin Drum’s words. However, calls to deport undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the southern border are the centerpiece – literally; it remains the only issue detailed on the “Make America Great Again!” website – of Trump’s unconventional campaign, and a major part of his allure.

Deporting over ten million undocumented immigrants is an ugly prospect. As Ed Kilgore has pointed out, hunting down millions of immigrants would require an expanded police state and civil liberty violations that Americans – hopefully – find more acceptable in theory than in practice. Ending birthright citizenship is widely thought to require a constitutional amendment, and the muddled unstated implication that Trump will “keep families together” by forcibly deporting the US-born, American citizen children of undocumented immigrants is certainly unconstitutional, as well as barbaric.

Beyond its domestic impact, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants would likely have a severe destabilizing effect on their countries of origin, especially smaller Central American states. This dynamic has occurred before.

El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates,* with spiraling violence between the small Central American country’s two leading gangs producing a murder rate comparable to literal war zones. Last month the criminal organizations attempted to pressure the government by shutting down the country’s mass transit, killing eight bus drivers and transportation workers who violated the order not to work. Citing the threat posed to public safety and state authority, this week the Salvadoran government deemed the gangs terrorists, regardless of whether individual gang members have committed any crime (via Mike Allison).

What does El Salvador’s chaos have to do with Trump’s vision of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants? As a recent story in the Guardian and background articles by InSight Crime detail, El Salvador’s current conflict was in large part precipitated by US immigration policy.

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans fled the country’s destructive civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s. An inability to gain formal asylum in the United States – in the 1980s “approximately 2 percent of applications were approved while the majority found their applications were considered ‘frivolous,'” Sarah Gammage writes – led many refugees to remain in the US illegally, often in Los Angeles’ poorer neighborhoods. Members of the newly-arrived Salvadoran communities in these gang-ridden areas organized their own gangs, most notably Mara Salvatrucha. Then a minor player in the US gang landscape, the mara allied itself with the more powerful Mexican Mafia, or la M; today Mara Salvatrucha is commonly called MS-13, “M” being the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.

In the late 1990s the Clinton administration, influenced by some of the same tough on crime and anti-immigration attitudes Trump draws on, began deporting foreign nationals convicted of less serious crimes than had previously merited deportation. These deported criminals included members of Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18, another Latino street gang with origins in Los Angeles. The effect on the weak states of Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – was disastrous. As InSight Crime writes:

Central American governments, some of the poorest and most ineffective in the Western Hemisphere, were not capable of dealing with the criminal influx, nor were they properly forewarned by US authorities. The convicts, who often had only the scarcest connection to their countries of birth, had little chance of integrating into legitimate society. They often turned to what they knew best: gang life. In this way, the decision to use immigration policy as an anti-gang tool spawned the virulent growth of the gang in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Unsurprisingly El Salvador’s criminal violence has flown back into the United States, just as it did during the civil war. Many of the Salvadorans seeking undocumented entry into the US fear for their safety back home. Both Calle 18 and MS-13 operate in the US, and there are strong links between the gangs’ leaderships in El Salvador and branches in the United States.

US deportation policy is not the only, or perhaps even most important, cause of El Salvador’s crisis of violence. The Salvadoran civil war devastated the country and, again as InSight Crime relates, left a cadre of veterans experienced in violence, some of whom turned to crime. The wider roots of Latin American violence, like the drug trade, also apply to El Salvador. Additionally, the Salvadoran government has also pursued harsh “Iron Fist” strategies to combat the gangs, which despite their widespread support – “those people aren’t my brothers. I would burn them all,” said one Salvadoran woman recently quoted by The New Yorker’s Daniel Alarcón (again via Mike Allison) – have likely worsened the crisis. By throwing young people who have only joined gangs to survive or aren’t affiliated with gangs at all in fetid, violent prisons, harsh policing strengthens and perpetuates criminal organizations.

To be sure, there are legitimate questions about whether the US should be responsible for imprisoning non-citizens who commit crimes, and American officials and the public were not unjustified as seeing the deported convicts as someone else’s problem. But even through a narrow lens focused only on US interests, nearly two decades on it is reasonable to question whether deporting convicts who contributed to El Salvador’s destabilizing crisis has been a net loss for the US.

Of course, the main reasons to object to Trump’s deportation proposals is that many are flatly immoral, nonsensical, or unconstitutional. Migrants fleeing the Central American violence that US policies helped create should be treated as the refugees they are.

Beyond their immorality, commentators should remember that Trump’s policies could cause serious social problems in Latin American countries beyond the halted flow of remittances. Importantly, American deportation policies’ impact on El Salvador’s crisis centered on deporting convicts, and the vast majority of those deporting under Trump’s nominal plans would not be criminals. Even so, suddenly throwing hundreds of thousands to millions of deportees – some convicted of crimes, some with little knowledge of or no social networks in the distant country of their birth – into already strained societies would be disastrous. Since even extremely harsh enforcement is probably unable to seal the US border entirely, feeding economic and violent instability today will likely worsen the flow of undocumented migrants tomorrow.

Many Americans will not care about these consequences, or view them as much less important than the domestic impact of deporting millions of immigrants. But given the intimate economic, criminal, and social linkages between Mexico and Central American and the United States, these risks should not be forgotten.

*El Salvador’s homicide rate recently moved to the unenviable position of the world’s highest outside of wars, but there are reasons to question the accuracy of this ranking.

What Can Argentina and Brazil Tell Us About Iran?

By Taylor Marvin

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

As the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran enter their final stretch opposition to any potential deal is becoming more strident. Building on the efforts of Republican Senators and others wary of a nuclear deal, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has a characteristic op-ed in the New York Times calling on the US to abandon the diplomatic process and attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure instead.

Despite the attention Bolton’s call for war has received, there isn’t much in his op-ed that hasn’t been heard before. Like other many arguments in favor of attacking Iran, Bolton doesn’t dwell on the immediate or longer-term consequences of strikes (see Robert Farley for this). More interesting is Bolton’s brief mention of previous American efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.

Bolton attributes India, Pakistan, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons to American and Western “inattention.” But — despite warning that “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program” — he writes that sound policies have contributed to ending other states’ nuclear ambitions:

“Successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, worked hard, with varying success, to forestall or terminate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons by states as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Even where civilian nuclear reactors were tolerated, access to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle was typically avoided. Everyone involved understood why.”

Bolton mentions these states’ nuclear programs to suggest that the Obama administration’s “increasingly frantic efforts” to negotiate with Iran are considering an unprecedented and dangerous concessions — continuing enrichment. Noting only that US policymakers “worked hard” to avoid nuclear proliferation gives Bolton leeway in these historical examples, but ultimately they are irrelevant to the negotiations with Iran.

South Korea and Taiwan benefit from US security guarantees, vastly reducing the security value of developing their own nuclear weapons. And since apartheid-era South Africa actually built a small number of nuclear weapons, only to abandon them before democratization, this example is only relevant if Bolton is arguing that the US should ignore the nuclear issue and instead focus on on Iranian human rights — something he clearly does not believe.

The South American example is occasionally mentioned in arguments favoring regime change as a means of blocking Iranian nuclear ambitions. (via Rob and j.r. hennessy). The history of Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs is not well known in the US. As Mitchell Reiss writes in Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, these states pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs under their military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Driven by the their rivalry and a desire for prestige, these nuclear weapons programs were shuttered through mutual negotiation and agreements barring weapons but which allow civil and maritime propulsion nuclear activities. Today both countries generate a small portion of their electricity from nuclear power. Brazil is in the process of building a nuclear-powered attack submarine, enriches small amounts of low-enriched uranium (with European involvement), and is generally thought capable of producing nuclear arms in a few years if it chose to do so.

Bolton includes Argentina and Brazil to fill out an otherwise short list and argue that the US should not tolerate any Iranian nuclear enrichment. But the substantial differences between the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs and Iran’s make this comparison, even Bolton’s fleeting one, misguided.

First, both Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons ambitions encountered substantial technical issues and had made little progress, which made it easier to negotiate an end to programs that were still far from success and not yet core national prestige projects. These negotiations also took place within the context of both countries’ returns to democracy, which undercut the military factions pushing for nuclear weapons and allowed civilian leaders more leeway to abandon the policies of the previous military governments. Barring a democratic revolution — which might not touch the nuclear issue, if enough Iranians outside the regime support the nuclear program — the dynamics of President Rouhani’s push to build regime support for a deal has little in common with Argentina and Brazil.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Secondly, again as Reiss writes, the peaceful end to Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs benefited from the United States’ distance from the negotiations. Both countries had refused to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they viewed as a hypocritical double-standard that barred them from the same nuclear status the superpowers enjoyed. Aside from pushing controls on sensitive technologies (which slowed down Argentina and Brazil’s progress) and pressure to accept safeguards and oversight, America’s low commitment to the process probably encouraged cooperation. America’s leading role in the negotiations with Iran, however, must be reconciled with a revolutionary state which defines itself in opposition to the West.

Finally, negotiations to mutually end Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs was just one piece of the process of ending the two countries’ military and political rivalry. Despite Argentina’s war with the UK over the disputed Falklands Islands and its rivalry with Chile — which prompted the widespread mining of Chile’s long border and almost led to war in the late 1970s — Argentina and Brazil were each other’s greatest external rivals. While war between the two was always distant — Reiss titles his chapter “Rivals, Not Enemies” — both countries’ nuclear programs were fueled by the fear that the other would acquire these dangerous and prestigious weapons and the other would not. Aside from the general prestige of nuclear weapons, easing tensions and the return to democracy removed the security rational for nuclear arms.

Of course, none of this applies to Iran, which is surrounded by sectarian and political enemies. US lawmakers regularly threaten Iran, as do its Israeli and Gulf state allies whose actions the US may or may not control. This is a far more complex security situation than that facing Argentine and Brazil in the 1980s. Similarly, the mutual ratcheting down of tensions was critical to avoiding a South American nuclear arms race. As Reiss writes, the “Latin American example strong suggests that resolution, or at least amelioration, of outstanding political disagreements must precede cooperation in the nuclear sphere.” Since the US has little ability to improve relations between Iran and its rivals, this comparison is irrelevant. Bolton certainly has no interest in resolving the political conflicts between the US, its Sunni allies, and Iran.

It remains unclear whether Iran and the P5+1 will reach an agreement, or if Iran has any intention of actually following an accord which trades nuclear oversight in exchange for sanctions relief. It is also unknown if, unlike Argentina and Brazil, Iran’s substantial investment in its nuclear efforts and their importance in the state’s ideology of resistance will even allow it to reach an agreement. The Obama administration, the P5+1, and Iran are in new territory.

Cuba and the Price of Principled Stands

By Taylor Marvin

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

One of the most enduring realities of US-Latin American relations appears set to finally end. On Wednesday, President Obama made the surprise announcement that the United States and Cuba had negotiated the reestablishment of their diplomatic relationship, following mutual prisoner releases. While many questions remain — notably whether a Republican-controlled Congress is prepared to end the American embargo on the island or would instead block the appointment of an ambassador to Havana — Cuba’s extreme isolation from the United States is drawing to a close.

Many conservative commentators have, unsurprisingly, questioned this policy change. While Tom Nichols writes that there is a conservative case for accepting normalized relations with Havana, the National Review Online’s Daniel Foster isn’t convinced (via Joshua Foust). Citing pieces by political scientist Dan Drezner and Charles Lane, Foster worries that normalizing American relations with Cuba will strengthen, not weaken, the Castro regime. If an eventual ending of the embargo is unlikely to hasten the regime’s demise, Foster asks, why should the US abandon “a half-century-old, principled stand, and reward human-rights-abusing evildoers, for that little upside?” Foster concludes that America’s dealings with other human rights violators — notably Saudi Arabia — strengthens the argument for preserving the Cuban embargo:

“You strike an alliance with a Saudi regime with a less-than-stellar human rights record because it’s surrounded by strategic threats in a region vital to U.S. interests. Cuba, by contrast, is parked in the middle of an American lake. We’ve had the run of the hemisphere for 120 years. If ever there’s a place where realist considerations leave room for taking a stand for liberty — even a largely symbolic one — it’s there.”

While remittance-spurred economic growth directly affects the lives of over 11 million Cubans and Obama’s move roused the passions of many Cuban-Americans who are either for or against the prospect of normalized relations, as Drezner notes ultimately the chances that increased ties will spur liberalization in Cuba are slim.

But it is wrong to suggest that the consequences of isolating Cuba can be neatly cordoned off from the rest of American foreign policy simply because Latin America is a stable region. First, as Drezner and others again note, isolating Cuba is an overwhelmingly unpopular policy among other states. Not only does normalizing relations with Cuba demonstrate to other American adversaries like Iran that US negotiating carrots are real, but maintaining the embargo furthers the general perception of the United States’ arrogance and that it does not respect the wishes of the international community.

Secondly, and more practically, Foster is wrong to dismiss a principled stand on Cuba — continuing the embargo — as costless. The Caribbean may remain “an American lake,” but Washington’s influence in Latin America today is likely the most modest it has been in a century, President Obama’s “moment of renewed leadership in the Americas” comment aside. China’s economic role in the region is growing, and while the ultimate influence of the BRICS emerging markets bloc — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — remains uncertain, large Latin American countries increasingly envision a future where economic growth and a multipolar will allow them to assert their interests outside of the United States’ hemispheric shadow. In particular, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) have repeatedly sought to demonstrate Brazil’s displeasure with US global leadership; Rousseff won reelection in October after narrowly defeating an opposition candidate who favored closer ties with the United States.

The United States’ Cuba policy is closely linked to its other relationships in Latin America. Despite its abuses the Castro regime is popular among many of the region’s heads of state, and this popularity cannot simply be hand-waved away. It isn’t only the more famously left-wing governments of chavista Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia that support the Castros. In Argentina, the leftist government of Cristina Kirchner — friendly with Cuba — was recently embarrassed by the revelation that the murderous right-wing Argentine military junta cooperated with communist Cuba; “for a dictator there’s nothing better than another dictator,” in El País’ translated words. And Brazil, which has famously — and controversiallyimported Cuban doctors, saw the prospect of normalizing US relations with Cuba as ending a Cold War anachronism, an impression echoed by Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz. Brazil also called for the prompt lifting of the embargo on Cuba.

Of course, America’s standing in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela will not improve much even if the embargo ends tomorrow. And “vulture funds” and Kirchner’s posturing over the Falklands Islands are far greater barriers to a solid US-Argentina relationship than Cuba policy. Similarly, America’s relations with Brazil were strained even before the revelations that the NSA had spied on President Rousseff’s personal communications.

But ties between the Washington and Brasília are an important, and neglected, relationship. Brazil is a country of two hundred million people, is already a major global market, and despite recent setbacks will likely be more economically and diplomatically consequential in the future than it is today. Even if the benefits of normalizing relations with Cuba are low, the half-century isolation of the island has done real damage to the US’ image in an important region. Simply dismissing Cuba — and Washington’s broader relationship with Latin America — as “symbolic” questions weakens the United States influence and furthers its reputation for arrogance, for little gain.

Update: The Christian Science Monitor has a report examining how relations with Latin America contributed to Obama’s policy shift.

Nuclear Weapons and the Brazilian Case

By Taylor Marvin

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

First off, my apologies for the long absence — I recently moved and started a new job, neither of which are conductive to regular writing.

Today I have a piece at Political Violence at a Glance (which I once edited, but have now moved on from, due to aforementioned the new job) looking at why Latin America remains the world’s largest region where nuclear weapons have never been produced.

The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco banned nuclear weapons in Latin America. But the treaty’s existence does not fully answer this question — if Latin American states really desired nuclear weapons they would develop them anyway and accept the consequences, refuse to fully abide by the treaty, or would not have signed it in the first place. Today’s Latin America includes several countries that likely possess the technological and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, with effort — Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico all spring to mind. One of these countries, Brazil, has long sought a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body whose current permanent members all possess nuclear arms. Latin America is also no stranger to arms races, with a little-known early 20th century dreadnought race between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most famous example. And as David R. Mares writes in his excellent book Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin America, interstate conflict, or at least militarized interstate bargaining, is more common in the region than commonly known. Chile militarized its long border during the country’s period of dictatorship, Argentina nearly went to war with Chile over Beagle Channel islands in the late 1970s, and violent rhetoric between Chile and its neighbors persists.

So if several Latin American countries have the resources to develop nuclear weapons, and arguably at least some incentive to do so, why does the region remain nuclear weapons-free?

The short answer is that Latin American countries were not in a position to develop nuclear weapons during the early years of the Cold War and both Argentina and Brazil abandoned their efforts to build nuclear arsenals in the 1980s and 1990s (see Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities for a detailed account of these events), all while the security and prestige gains from these weapons have steadily eroded while their diplomatic costs have increased. Today there is little reason why Brazil or Argentina would invite international condemnation by building nuclear weapons, when both countries face no external threats and see a path to global prestige through international organizations and economic growth, rather than unpopular nuclear arms.

However, as I allude this argument is a bit of a circular one in the Latin American context. It is arguable that states aspiring to global leadership roles have moved away from building nuclear weapons as a means of realizing their ambitions. But this observation rests heavily on the Brazilian example, because Brazil is one of the world’s most prominent non-nuclear states. Of the emerging economies BRICS bloc only Brazil has never possessed nuclear weapons (South Africa voluntarily gave up its own small nuclear arsenal), though of course Brazil’s historical experience is hugely different than India and South Africa, and especially from the USSR/Russia and China. Brazil’s non-nuclear status is not alone among the G4 nations hoping to join a reformed UN Security Council, but Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to decline fielding nuclear arms, even if both are capable of building them. So if Brazil does elect to build nuclear weapons the argument that modern aspirants to international status don’t need nuclear arms would collapse, both in theory and probably in practice.

All this isn’t to say that the alarmism of Hans Rühle’s 2010 article is correct. It is still difficult to say what Brazil would actually gain from developing nuclear weapons, and the country’s long coastline, offshore resources, and military modernization ambitions make developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine a legitimate goal (in the sense that consistently operating one or more nuclear attack submarine would grant the Brazilian navy significant new, practical capabilities). Of course it is unclear who an advanced submarine would actually be defending Brazil from, but that isn’t the point of prestige military programs. Unlike nuclear weapons few would condemn an eventual Brazilian nuclear submarine as anything beyond a waste of money, and this comparatively unoffensive weapons program still buys admission to an elite technological club. But even if Brazil joining the world’s nuclear weapons states is unlikely, it is important to remember that the negative consequences of it choosing to do so would be very serious.

Will Governments Ever Say No Thanks to Global Events?

By Taylor Marvin

The June opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is fast approaching, but not all Brazilians are happy that their country will be hosting soccer’s premier event. Despite Brazilians’ futebol-mad reputation, a February poll found that only 52 percent of Brazilians supported hosting the Cup. By April that number had fallen below fifty percent. In addition to construction fatalities and fears of heavy-handed policing during the Cup, many residents of the South American giant are concerned about the event’s cost, and believe that funds devoted to what the government of President Dilma Rousseff has dubbed the Copa das Copas or ‘Cup of Cups’ could be better spent elsewhere. Rousseff, who is heavily favored to win what is expected to be a rough second term in October, certainly hopes that the World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics will be a high point of her term in presidency. But even if the World Cup and Olympics unfold successfully and protests are kept to a minimum, Brazil’s efforts to host these events have not gone as smoothly as their backers would have hoped.

The problems associated with hosting large international sporting events — rushed construction, ballooning costs, and public opposition — are not limited to Brazil. The days before the opening of this winter’s Sochi Olympics were marked by widespread media reportsor, less charitably, mocking — of substandard construction and a frantic last-second push to finish building accommodations. Less immediately, the Sochi Olympics, which were the most expensive in history, drew attention to Russia’s widespread corruption problem, which challenges the Games’ overt goal of demonstrating Russia’s modernity and encouraging foreign business. The Sochi Games also leave behind a fantastically expensive resort city no one seems to know what to do with. While it is debatable whether Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine is related to the Sochi Games, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the threat of retaliatory sanctions certainly doesn’t help.

Elsewhere, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup requires truly staggering construction in the oil-rich Gulf State. Conditions for the migrant workers tasked with building these facilities and infrastructure projects are so bad and so many workers are expected to die that it is possible to seriously raise the question of whether FIFA can be considered a mass killer. South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup was also troubled by serious worries about the country’s ability to host such a massive event.

If hosting massive international sports grows more expensive and difficult, will governments eventually decide that it simply isn’t worth it? After all, noble-minded talk of the thrill of sport and international cooperation aside governments’ desire to host these high-profile events is really driven by the international prestige and attention they bring. If the risks of spiraling costs and mass protests — particularly in the age of social media — put this prestige in doubt, governments may be more hesitate to spend such vast sums. The almost gleeful mocking of unfinished Sochi construction must have raised many eyebrows in countries scheduled to host their own international sporting events. Will governments ever look at the precedent of negative reporting on Sochi’s unfinished hotel rooms and Qatar’s thousands of dead laborers and simply say ‘no thanks’?

This question is particularly relevant for democratic governments. Autocracies, like Russia and Qatar, can simply decide that event-driven gains to their prestige are worth the possible costs to their image or domestic unrest over construction costs. Autocratic countries, less constrained by human rights concerns, also have greater ability to preserve their own image by keeping demonstrators away from the international media. In democracies, however, these risks are more difficult to shrug off, particularly on the domestic level — while Brazil’s Rousseff remains heavily favored to win reelection, protests driven by anger over the Cup did real damage to her polling, damage she is surly aware of.

Of course, despite their costs the recent Olympics Games in Beijing, Vancouver, London, and Sochi, and the South African FIFA World Cup, were all ultimately successful. These events experienced cost overruns, delays, and ultimately leave behind brand-new facilities and infrastructure that are difficult to find a use for once the games are over, but all of these events suffered no major disasters and brought positive global attention to their host countries. This positive coverage is why it is difficult to imagine a large-scale move away from hosting massive international sports events by democratic governments. Despite negative attention like the #sochiproblems Twitter hashtag that trended in the opening days of the Winter Olympics, international media coverage of international athletic events follows a script. In the lead up to the games, media focuses on construction and the dramatic possibility of delays. Because this news is not yet a major story, this coverage tends to be delegated to the international news that most consumers do not closely follow. As the event approaches and journalists arrive to the host city, they fill their time by reporting on facilities problems, adding audience-drawing drama to an otherwise uneventful waiting period. But once the matches actually start, sports reporting dominates. Barring a serious disaster, this feel-good coverage of athletics and the glamor of opening and closing ceremonies is what viewers around the world will remember after the events are over. The negative legacy of these events, like corruption and useless facilities, are much less reported on once international journalists have left.

As long as something does not go seriously wrong, both international audiences and Brazilians will likely remember the 2014 World Cup for the soccer, not delays and cost overruns. From the perspective of international prestige, that’s a win. Similarly, the brutal truth is that it is difficult to imagine a world where anonymous worker deaths leave a greater impact on audiences than the highlights of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. As long as media coverage of these events follows the same script, governments will likely keep chasing the perfect Copa das Copas.

Dueling Narratives in Venezuela

By Taylor Marvin

Last month Dorothy Kronick published a long piece on Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis at FiveThirtyEight. In keeping with the young publication’s self-proclaimed data-driven mission, Kronick attempts to explain Venezuela’s political conflict between supporters of the government, led by Hugo Chávez heir Nicolás Maduro, and the opposition, which is primarily supported by the middle class and the country’s traditional elites, through Venezuela’s economic performance and social metrics, such as poverty reduction and the infant mortality rate. Kronick suggests that the violent political divide between chavistas and opposition supporters is partially due to different measures of Chavismo’s success. “Chavistas compare the present to Venezuela’s pre-Chávez past,” Kronick writes, “while the opposition contrasts the current economic situation with more recent developments in the rest of Latin America.”

Under Chávez, first elected in 1999, and his successor Maduro, who was elected in April 2013 after Chávez’s death, poor Venezuelans have experienced real gains. Poverty rates have fallen, and the social works championed by the Chávez and Maduro administrations have brought healthcare and other forms of social welfare to the poor who form the bedrock of Chavismo popular support. However, at the same time Venezuela’s wider economy has decayed, a decay driven by the state’s reliance on the oil economy, political instability, and Chavismo’s erratic appropriation of private industry. To middle class Venezuelans, the argument goes, the last decade compares poorly to Venezuela’s neighbors, who have been able to fight poverty while not sacrificing political stability and sustainable economic growth.

Via Erik Loomis, a piece by Mark Weisbrot posted in Jacobin critiques Kronick’s analysis. Most interestingly, Weisbrot doubts the theory that Maduro’s supporters compare contemporary Venezuela’s development with its two-party-oligarchy past while his opponents judge it against the wider region: “Do voters anywhere in the world judge their government based on a comparison to its peers?” Weisbrot further argues that Venezuela’s economic performance under the Chávez and Maduro administrations is better than commonly believed, and faults Kronick for highlighting metrics unrelated to Venezuelans’ standard of living. Weisbrot also notes that Venezuela’s heavy foreign aid spending means that oil revenue that left the country did not do so to line the pockets of corrupt officials. “From an economic, human, and moral point of view, this is relevant,” he writes, closing the piece.

This exchange is interesting because of its intersection between economic analysis and identity politics. While limited both by space and FiveThirtyEight’s data focus, Dorothy Kronick appears to understate the role of social identity in Venezuela’s political conflict. Chavismo has always been driven by the state’s relationship with Venezuela’s common people. Chávez and, less skillfully, Maduro speak directly to Venezuela poor, in a racially diverse country look like them, and have devoted great effort to improving their lives in a very visible way. Not unreasonably, chavistas view the opposition as a remote elite desperate to recover their historical privileges at the expense of the masses. But that does not make the ‘truth’ of the opposition’s perspective false. Middle and upper class opposition supporters are not wrong to see Madruo’s administration as erratic, authoritarian, and totally unprepared to address the country’s economic problems and out-of-control crime rate, and its repressive response to student protests as vicious and brutal.

These two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Chavismo can enjoy mass support while still being autocratic and supplementing its ability to win elections with a deliberate campaign to subvert independent institutions. Similarly, the Venezuelan government’s anti-poverty measures have made a real difference in millions of lives, while also doing so in a clientelistic manner and are less sustainable and evaluated than conditional transfer programs like Brazil’s successful bolsa família.

At a time when many Latin American countries are strengthening democracy and growing their economies, it’s silly to dismiss the thought that the Venezuelan opposition sees the differences between the neighbors and their own country’s failing institutions and mass basic good shortages. But chavistas can draw a different lesson. Ideologically-aligned or at least allied administrations, such as Evo Morales’ in Bolivia, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and, more distantly, Cristina Kirchner’s in Argentina and the administrations of Brazilian Partido dos Trabalhadores presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, all face some domestic opposition but have not seen the same violent mass opposition as in Venezuela. The lesson Maduro supporters can draw from this is that their own opposition is less willing to compromise — a reluctance, of course, driven by Chavismo’s own radicalism — than elsewhere in South America, a virulence that puts greater repressive actions on the table, so to speak.

Ultimately support for or opposition to Maduro’s administration is more a question of politics and identity than data. Even more uncertainly, it rests on inherently-uncertain counterfactuals and predictions about the future. Would Venezuela — whether the country as a whole, or specific segments of society — be better off today if Chávez had never come to the presidency? Will it be worse off at the end of Maduro’s term than today? If an over-reliance on oil is one of the greatest long-term challenges facing Venezuela, what’s to say that this same resource curse — which is not limited to leftist governments — would not have metastasized under another administration? Will Maduro ever leave power at all, or will he be forced from it before his term is completed in 2019? If Maduro is not forced out now will a military coup depose him in the future, making a coup driven by opposition politicians and technocrats today ultimately preferable to a more violent one in the future?

Data can help us make educated guesses about these questions, but can’t definitively answer them, and the business of politics is more driven by the narratives that inform people’s engagement with them. These narratives are the real long-term costs of Venezuela’s political conflict. When politics becomes this contentious, with such violently high stakes, someone will always be the loser. If Maduro is forced from power now or even fairly loses the 2019 election, chavistas will, not unreasonably, see it as the work of a classist — ‘that bus driver‘ — and elitist opposition who played dirty rather than lose their privileges. If the opposite occurs, the opposition will watch their country being run into the ground by negligent ideologues who would rather dismantle democratic institutions than risk losing power.

Both these narratives are, in a way, true.

How Real Is BRICS Solidarity on Crimea?

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho and Presidência da República, via .

Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho and Presidência da República, via Agência Brasil.

Last week a resolution calling on the international community not to recognize the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea easily passed through the United Nations General Assembly. The non-binding agreement, which urged restraint and a peaceful resolution to the conflict, received a hundred votes in favor, 11 against, and 58 abstentions, in addition to a number of UN member states not present for the vote.

While the resolution was adopted, commentators immediately drew attention to the comparatively low number of “Yes” votes. It is difficult to think of a more blatant violation of international norms than Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and later annexation of the peninsula after a singularly-unconvincing referendum. While the only states to vote against the resolution were Russia and ten of its close allies such as Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan, and Armenia, the high number of abstentions is a puzzle. Why would so many states remain on the sidelines, so to speak, of such a clear-cut issue?

More importantly, why did Russia’s BRICS peers — a loose bloc of large developing economies composed of, besides Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa — all abstain from the vote? The BRICS bloc, a grouping that was first proposed (minus South Africa) by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001, has always been an association stronger on paper than the real world, but this show of solidarity is striking. While China is a Russian ally that also hopes to regain territory it once lost — in China’s case, Taiwan — its government has also long presented itself as committed to ideals of territorial sovereignty and states’ freedom from foreign interference, a stance its abstention undercuts. Brazil, India, and South Africa are all democracies that presumably should strongly oppose Vladimir Putin’s ‘might makes right’ annexation of Crimea.

Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s stance is especially puzzling because their abstention on the UN resolution reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity is, for all practical purposes, a vote in favor of Russia. With its invasion and annexation already successful, Russia now seeks to defend the status quo, a reality that a refusal to condemn Russia supports. One potential answer to this puzzle is that, as Daniel Larison has written, these countries simply don’t see the Crimea issue as vital enough to their interests to take on the diplomatic risks of a firm position. Another is that Russia put great effort into urging its fellow BRICS countries to support it, though this alone is an unsatisfying explanation — it’s difficult to see Russia as having the leverage to coerce a bloc of countries that together are far more populous and economically powerful than itself.

Via Milena Rodban, in The Diplomat Zachary Keck suggests another explanation. Noting a statement by BRICS foreign ministers denouncing the push to impose costs on Russia’s Crimea annexation, Keck sees the the BRICS countries’ abstentions at the UN General Assembly as a deliberate repudiation of Western norms and the pressures by which the United States and its allies seek to enforce them. This repudiation is part of a strategy designed to united the otherwise disparate BRICS countries. “BRICS has often tried to overcome these internal challenges by unifying behind an anti-Western or at least post-Western position,” Keck writes. “In that sense, it’s no surprise that the group opposed Western attempts to isolate one of its own members.”

This is a provocative explanation for BRICS solidarity at the UN. However, there is also a simpler one. As Keck lists, the BRICS bloc has incentives to both preserve its own unity and demonstrate its relevance, but the UN vote is less a demonstration of the strength of this “post-Western” solidarity than that the costs of doing so are very small.

Yes, an abstention is an implicit voice of support for Russia, but it is far less forceful than the “No” votes on the Assembly resolution. The most obvious takeaway from the vote isn’t that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa abstained from the vote along with with 54 other countries, but that Russia was only able to draw “No” votes from a small number of its obvious allies and, more embarrassingly, clients. Moreover, while 100 “Yes” votes is hardly a ringing endorsement of the norms against territorial annexation, the vote itself was never in doubt. The non-Russian members of the BRICS bloc could afford a mild show of solidarity with Russia because there was no chance that their measured statements in opposing sanctions and abstentions would actually lead to the rejection of the Assembly resolution.

Similarly, the governments of Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are unlikely to pay any costs for their positions at home. In Brazil, in particular, a recent Christian Science Monitor piece noted that while Russia’s annexation is unpopular in the Brazilian press, the conflict is overshadowed by domestic issues, like the fast-approaching World Cup, and in the international realm events in Brazil’s immediate neighborhood. Recent pieces published in Brazilian media have, for example, argued that a referendum cannot legitimize annexation, warned of future conflict, and echoed the argument that Russia will lose influence in the rest of Ukraine. But it seems unlikely that the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is widely favored to win reelection this fall, will suffer any serious domestic pushback from abstention, along with those of its democratic BRICS counterparts in India and South Africa.

Another explanation for the vote’s cost — and thus its importance as a post-Western moment — born by the BRICS is that several of the bloc’s members face secessionist movements of their own. China has real fears of Tibetan and Uyghur separatism — in addition to the possibility of a formal Taiwanese independence declaration — and India a number of separatist movements, most notably in Jammu and Kashmir. Supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea must be costly to states facing secessionist movements, the theory goes, because it will encourage separatists elsewhere. However, this seems not to be the case in practice. Political scientist Steve Saideman has extensively argued countries support or oppose secessionist movements “based on the context of each one, rather than to any over-arching principle.” Canada recognized Kosovo because such a move fit into the country’s wider foreign policy goals, despite its own secessionist movement in Quebec; a notably counterargument to this theory is Spain’s non-recognition of Kosovo. All this suggests that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s support for Russia will not bring future costs by encouraging domestic secessionists. This is particularly true for Brazil, where to the best of my knowledge a breakaway southern state has no chance of success or even much real support. (One of the movement’s website appears to now be a Japanese porn site.)

So it’s possible that Brazil, China, India, and South Africa all abstained from the Assembly resolution on Crimea to stand against — so the narrative goes — a hypocritical West. But even if this is true, this is less a bold stance than an empty one. Bland statements and abstentions do aid Russia, but do little in any practical way. It is worth remembering that a single “No” vote from a large, democratic country like Brazil, India, or South Africa would have been an immensely powerful public relations tool for Putin. The fact that Russia couldn’t manage to get even one from its BRICS counterparts substantially weakens the argument that the vote represents some new post-Western moment. The BRICS group may, in Oliver Stuenkel’s words, be driven by a narrative “that emerging powers are successful and that the rise of the Global South is set to fundamentally change the distribution of power in global affairs.” But that does not mean that the Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are willing to bear serious costs in support of Russian military adventurism.

Instead, it is more likely that BRICS leaders are only willing to offer token — and more importantly, largely costless — support for an increasingly unpopular and isolated Russia.